Sunday, March 15, 2009
Bangkok February 14th, 2009
We flew to Bangkok on Valentine’s Day morning, Saturday, February 14th. Bangkok is both the prelude and the sequel to the “real” part of our vacation. It’s our entry-point; you can’t fly directly from Hong Kong to either Siem Reap or Luang Prabang, and flying from Bangkok is cheaper than other options, so here we are. We tried to spend a long weekend in Bangkok at the beginning of December, but their little impromptu revolution or whatever it was that shut down their airport put the stop to that. So, all-in-all I’m glad to be here, although somewhat anxious and excited to get to destination number two – Angkor Wat.
Bangkok is hot, dirty, friendly, beautiful, ugly. The stories about the traffic are true, if perhaps understated. The stories about the food on the streets are also true. We arrived around 11 am Saturday morning; met by our sleek Mercedes Limo and driver. We inched our way through the crazy traffic to our hotel, the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit. Our hotel is just beautiful but unfortunately its way out in the expat area of town (we chose it for the special 3M rate we could get), which makes getting into the city where most of the tourist sites are difficult. We took a taxi into town for lunch and a little sight-seeing. I had my first opportunity to practice emulating Thai friendliness and patience, something that’s good for me, but difficult to achieve, especially when hungry.
Following the Lonely Planet’s directives we settled on a simple Thai restaurant for lunch Krua Noppharat. Seeing how it had been almost 9 hours since I had last eaten I probably would have thought cardboard tasted delicious, but it really WAS good – banana flower salad, pineapple rice, green curry, spring rolls, two glasses of lemon iced tea (while Lee drank a large bottle of Singha beer)…I was feeling pretty content after that.
Following lunch we decided to follow a short walking tour of the area we were in down by the river – Banglamphu. We don’t seem to pronounce any of the words correctly, since taxi drivers are initially puzzled by what we are trying to say, but their unfailingly friendly and patient attitude eventually helps us make our meaning clear. We followed the Lonely Planet path backward, first along the river and then back toward the city center. What did we see? Well, massage parlors in abundance. Every other shop seems to offer various massages, foot reflexology, aroma therapy, etc. Are they legit or are they really something else? Hard to say. I’ve heard that guys are regularly propositioned and asked if they want a “special” service, even when they are with their wives, so who knows. I’m tempted to try one though when we stop back here on our way back to Hong Kong.
Secondly amulet shops. Really this place could be mistaken for a Catholic shrine; it really isn’t that different. Shop after shop sells gold trinkets of various kinds that are used in the Buddhist worship services.
Thirdly, street food. I’ve never seen such an endless array of pushcarts, hole-in-the-wall eating places, hawker stands, you name it. Every imaginable food was for sale, and much of it looked delicious. Good thing we were absolutely stuffed from lunch. Lee was drawn to the stir-fried veggies. I yearned longingly for the banana-fritters, but couldn’t possibly manage to eat anything. It was terribly fun to see what each stand held to eat. If I wasn’t a bit afraid of getting the touristas I’d definitely try some street food when we return. I do think those little taco-like things we saw need to be sampled at the very least.
We entered one Buddhist temple along the way. A service was in progress, so the beautiful, peaceful sound of monks chanting filled the area. People sat in chairs along one side of the temple, sitting quietly, hands folded in prayer. A GIANT gold Buddha graced the center of the temple. I don’t know why, but these temples give me an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness. I experienced a similar feeling in Bali. I don’t feel the same way in Chinese temples. Chinese temples affect me more like Jewish synagogues. I may experience a feeling of respect for the history and culture, but as I watch the Chinese go about their rituals its seems more like something practical as opposed to spiritual is taking place. I’m not saying this is bad; it’s just different. Paying respect to your ancestors, honoring your roots, saying the prayers and doing the rituals to make peace with your God and the Universe, well, that’s a necessary part of life I think. But Buddhism as practiced in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries is about something else. It’s why it’s perfectly possible to be a Buddhist and a Christian or a Buddhist and a Jew. Buddhism is a method of relating to the world. I’m not a Buddhist; I don’t have the temperament for it, or the desire to achieve that temperament. I love the world and I really think that’s all there is, that and our unknowable God. But I’m periodically drawn to the way my encounters with Buddhism make me feel.
So! See what happens to me in a Buddhist country. Funny me. Our walking about in Bangkok mid-afternoon was very heated. This is the “cool” season in Thailand. Good God, summer must be just unbearable! After about an hour it was time to stop in at the Bangkok Inn for a bit of air conditioning and an iced coffee. Lee was yawning (all that beer) and I was wilting from the heat. What a cute little boutique hotel. We sat there admiring someone’s baby, cooling off and rehydrating and recaffinating. Lovely.
We decided to grab a taxi back to the closest stop on the Skytrain, Bangkok’s lovely mass transit system. Too bad it doesn’t go all the way in to the city center. It took forever in the taxi just to get to the closest station. From there, it was only a couple of minutes the rest of the way back to the hotel.
We decided we wanted seafood for dinner, and I didn’t want to travel forever in a taxi to get there, so we opted for a very odd place relatively close to the hotel – Seafood Market. What a crazy place! It’s designed to make it look like you are eating at the bottom of the ocean. Fake fish sail above your head and what looks like the side and bottom of a ship float by on the wall. When they said market they weren’t just kidding. You grab a shopping cart and go pick out your ingredients – prawns, crabs, lobsters, grouper, etc., plus veggies, wine, whatever else you want. Take it all back to your table and the wait staff help you decide how you want it cooked. They take it all away and then bring back your dinner. For the most part it was pretty good, but relatively expensive for Bangkok and the prawns weren’t that fresh. I should have let Lee choose an authentic Thai seafood place; taxi ride be damned. Oh well.
After sleeping in (well Lee slept, I was up bright and early as I usually am nowadays) we had a delicious breakfast by the side of the pool at our hotel. Now today it’s off to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat – I can’t wait!